Why Major Donors Give – How to Tap into Their Motives and Inspire Transformational Gifts

So many nonprofits seeking major gifts keep doing what they’ve been told by the so-called experts, consultants, and traditionalists. Ask, ask, ask. Keep your metrics consistent. Stick to the script. Wealth screening. RFM. When something new and flashy like AI comes along, they might add that to the mix because, “Yay! Technology.”

But does any of that stuff work as well as it should?

Are those the strategies and the ways of communicating and understanding your major donors that best connect with them?

Do those techniques help activate the emotions that motivate transformational gifts?

If you don’t take the time to really understand why major donors give, and incorporate that understanding into your processes – personalized to each donor – all those other procedural techniques and data points won’t amount to much.

Why Do Major Donors Give?

A body of research from Dr. Russell James, named to the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners Hall of Fame for his groundbreaking work, has found that what motivates major gifts from donors more than anything else has little to do with being pestered enough, or having enough wealth capacity.

The most essential element to inspiring major gifts is to activate the part of the donor’s brain that values social-emotional outcomes.

How do we do that?

According to Dr. James, it requires three components:

  • Visualization – see yourself as the hero of your life story through helping others
  • Identification – relate in a personal way – through your story – to at least one person you’re helping
  • Social emotion – Feeling empathy for the people your gift will help

When you can elicit these emotions and realizations from a major gifts prospect, you will inspire transformational gifts. People who feel this way stop objecting and resisting, and start looking at how they can give, and how much. People motivated in this way give at or beyond their capacity.

Sounds great right?

But how do you do this? To help donors visualize, identify, and empathize, you must take the time to understand the specific reasons each donor prospect wants to give.

What will arouse those emotions in each donor? It won’t be the same for everyone, because people have different reasons for why they care about an organization’s mission.

Every major donor – yes, every one of them – wants to advance their own personal hero story through giving, as Dr. James describes it. You can explore so much more about how to do this by taking our eCourse, Donor Story: Epic Fundraising, which is based on Dr. James’ lifetime of research.

To get you started, let’s look at 11 reasons why major donors give.

11 Reasons Why Major Donors Give

Every donor wants to feel the social emotions that lead to the biggest gifts. But provoking those emotions requires a different path for each donor, because not all are motivated by the same things. Here are some of the most common reasons behind why major donors give.

1. Give Back or Repay

This is a common motivation of donors who themselves benefitted from your organization’s work. This frequently happens for universities and hospitals, but can happen for many other nonprofits too. They received, and now they want to give back, or pay it forward.

2. Experience a Spiritual Feeling

Religious people continue to make up an outsize majority of donors. Some people give for reasons related to their faith, more than anything else.

You need to understand this, because if you’re spending your whole pitch talking about symbolic immortality like getting your name on a plaque, or other sorts of motivations, but all this donor wants is to give the most they can out of devotion to their faith, you are missing their heart.

It would be worth your while as a fundraiser to understand the most common religious teachings from the various faiths that speak to giving and generosity, so you can more authentically connect with these donors.

3. Build a Sense of Community

Community acts as a powerful motivator for some donors. We’re all in this together. It takes a village. A rising tide lifts all boats. These sayings haven’t sprung out of nowhere. They exist because a sizable number of people care very much about bringing people together to make our world a better place – for everyone.

Raising money for a park, community center, music school, new facility, or many other sorts of community institutions will be very inspiring for people who value this.

4. Right Wrongs – Fight Injustice

As you look at these reasons for why donors give, you are probably noticing that some of them naturally align with certain types of nonprofit missions.

Some donors get very passionate about fixing what is broken, and in particular, addressing the ways that brokenness has impacted certain people or specific communities. When you can tap into this motive and connect it to your mission, you can inspire big gifts.

5. Personal Experience that Relates to Your Organization’s Mission

This could come from work experience, volunteer experience, family background, or many other places in life, especially from childhood and early adulthood. What we do and learn in those formative years tends to affect and shape our future decisions and passions to an outsize degree.

When you take the time to learn a donor’s story, and understand where they’ve been in life, what they’ve learned, what matters to them, who played a pivotal role in their lives, and other personal truths like these, you can find ways to relate those experiences to your mission, and motivate a transformational gift.

6. Heal Their Pain

Sometimes, when a donor gets to help others who have been or are being hurt in ways similar to the donor, it makes them hurt a little less. Picture a survivor some sort of trauma who now has wealth and success, but came from a very difficult past.

Such a person may be highly motivated to give to organizations helping others who are still living with that same trauma from similar experiences. Or, they might give to organizations working to prevent it from happening in the first place. Prevention is better than cure, as the saying goes.

Again, these are going to be deeply personal, powerful motivations, that touch areas of their lives the donor may not feel comfortable talking about at first. But when they see you as a friend, a guide, a sage, rather than a solicitor pestering them because your metric documents say to call three times, email five times, and text seven times a month – they will eventually open up and share their past with you.

And when you respectfully show them how giving will help heal their pain in a small way, this person can become a loyal donor.

7. Honor or Memorialize Someone

This motive for giving can apply to just about any organization and arise from just about any donor. People like to honor others who have played a profound role in their lives. Family, friends, mentors, co-workers, bosses, teachers, pastors, etc.

Other donors like to honor people they have never met, but who inspire them in some way.

For example, suppose someone relatively unknown passes away due to a disease without a cure. A donor might read about them in the news and be driven to give a major gift, but only if someone (that’s you!) shows them how they can attach that person’s name to it. That way, everyone who knows about the gift will know the person’s name they want to honor.

8. Family Tradition

Some families have developed a generational tradition of giving to particular organizations or causes. In situations like this, these can be some of the easiest major gifts to win. But you can just as easily drive them away by taking it for granted.

Tapping into this motive for giving still requires connecting with them over the importance of their family heritage, and showing each new generation of donors how they can extend that legacy in new and fresh ways that are meaningful to them.

9. Permanent Legacy that Extends Beyond Life

This can also be called symbolic immortality, a term often used by Dr. James. For some, this is a powerful motivation. Will anyone remember me? If so, what will they remember me for?

For wealthy donors who care about their name and reputation even after they’re gone, this is a very strong motive for giving a major gift. Your job is to validate their need and then show them how they can fulfill it through giving a major gift to your organization.

10. Gain Notoriety

After Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott divorced, people began noticing differences in their donation practices. Bezos’ gifts often came with big press announcements, whereas Scott’s typically happened without much fanfare until the news sort of surfaced on its own.

What does this mean? It means one of Bezos’ motives for giving major gifts is notoriety, but Scott is motivated by something else. Bezos wants people to know he has given. Perhaps he thinks that will influence how he is perceived. Whatever the specific reasons, the fact that he announces it demonstrates that notoriety matters to him. He wants recognition, and this can be delivered in a variety of meaningful ways depending on the donor.

As a fundraiser, when you talk with prospects, you should be able to discover if this motive plays a role their desire to give a major gift. Are you talking with a Jeff Bezos or a MacKenzie Scott?

11. Feel That They Are a Good Person

Some donors, when they look at their lives, they know they’ve made mistakes. They may have real regrets over people they’ve hurt in various ways. Whatever the case, such a person might believe that by giving, they can feel better about themselves.

Giving might help them start rewriting their own personal narrative.

As a fundraiser, this is where listening becomes so important. What if a donor shares something they’ve done that is truly distasteful? How would you respond? More importantly, why are they sharing this with you? One possible and very likely reason is that they want some sort of redemption, or opportunity to right the wrong, and think that giving may provide the path.

So, you can judge them for their mistakes and try to conceal your loathing, or you can validate their chosen means of turning the page in their life.

Help the Donor Advance Their Hero Story Through Giving

All these motives for giving major gifts tie back to what we said at the start.

Donors want to give because their own story matters to them. They want to visualize themselves making a difference in the world that affects others. They want to identify with at least one person their gift will help. And they want to empathize with that person, so they can feel the social-emotional outcome their major gift will produce.

You can help them get there. But first, you need to figure out why they want to give at all. Make it a priority to discover which of these reasons for giving, or perhaps others, are driving your prospect enough to want to talk with you.


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